Bobby Rahal

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RLL working towards BMW renewal, IndyCar second car

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One of Bobby Rahal and the Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing’s strengths for the better part of the last decade has been the ability to run two parallel programs – one in IndyCar and one in sports cars – that contend for wins and championships on an annual basis.

And the goal is to continue that into 2018 as one of its programs comes up for renewal.

BMW Motorsport has partnered with RLL, under the BMW Team RLL banner, for nearly a decade since 2009. In that time frame, BMW and RLL have combined to launch the M3, Z4 and M6 GTE spec models, winning races seven of the nine years.

There have been 13 combined wins – seven with the M3 from 2009 to 2012, four with the Z4 from 2013 to 2015 and now two with the new M6 this year – along with the 2011 ALMS GT title for Joey Hand and Dirk Mueller and a pair of back-to-back Mobil 1 Twelve Hours of Sebring wins in 2011 and 2012.

While the contract is up for bid and as rumors swirl of a possible change by BMW to another outfit, Rahal is optimistic the years of success achieved by the combined unit will be able to continue together for 2018 and beyond as the new M8 GTE makes its debut.

“BMW is our priority – we’ve been with them nearly 10 years,” Rahal told NBC Sports. “Of course it’s a contract year. I would presume given our success that should mean something to them, and that the relationship would continue.”

BMW finally has come to the fore in GTLM. Photo courtesy of IMSA

The pair of back-to-back wins this IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship season at Watkins Glen International and Canadian Tire Motorsport Park could not have come at a better time.

Balance of Performance adjustments seem to have adversely affected BMW Team RLL and the M6 GTLM more than other cars within the stacked GT Le Mans class, and through a combination of bad luck, pace restrictions and the heavier car, the M6 was stuck in a near two-year rut from when it got introduced prior to 2016 through mid-year this year.

That was a challenge to team morale, but it was something Rahal was keen and focused to lead the team through.

“It’s been a long time coming as you say. Let’s face it; there were mechanical issues we started out with when the car first showed up, and then BoP came in and knocked the wind out of our sails for most of the rest of 2016,” he reflected.

“Even Sebring this year, we were so far off. I thought it was a hell of a job to finish on the same lap as the leaders almost at Daytona and Sebring, as we didn’t have anywhere near the pace (timing data backs that up; best race lap at Daytona was a 1:44.247, one of only three cars in 11 in the 1:44s while rest in 1:43s and at Sebring, best race lap 1:58.376 more than a second off leaders). That was just good consistent running and pit stops.

“As I told people recently, I think Sebring was the longest 12 hours of my life – it was painful. We didn’t stand a chance. To sit there and pound around there knowing that, the crew pushing on anyway, depressing was a good word.

“We finally got the BoP back starting at Austin as we were on equal ground, and now we actually had a shot. At least you’re in the race with a chance. We saw that in Austin and then it kept going at Watkins Glen and Mosport.”

Both lineups have changed this year with Alexander Sims and Martin Tomczyk joining BMW American veterans Bill Auberlen and John Edwards, respectively, in the Nos. 25 and 24 BMW M6 GTLMs. These two are largely new to the American scene but have adapted rather well.

Rahal also harbors Le Mans ambitions for his team, and while that is highly unlikely to be with BMW given it will have the M-TEK team running the M8 GTE in Europe, he’d one day like to run an LMP2 entry there and have a heavy American presence in the driver lineup.

AVONDALE, AZ – APRIL 28: Graham Rahal, driver of the #15 Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing Honda drives during practice for the Desert Diamond West Valley Phoenix Grand Prix at Phoenix International Raceway on April 28, 2017 in Avondale, Arizona. (Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)

As for on the other domestic front, one of the annual questions that arises with RLL – which consistently overachieves as a one-car team in the Verizon IndyCar Series – is whether it will expand back to a two-car program full-time for the first time since 2013. A second car has run part-time each of the last four years, including this one.

The possibility is greater of that happening with again, rumors of teams switching manufacturers. If Honda has available units in the bank, that enhances the chances that a second RLL car will appear on the grid. Rahal remains adamant though that such a driver would need to enhance the overall competitiveness of the program.

“Having a good two-car team is better than a good one-car team, but the second car has to be a contributor, not just a second car,” Rahal said.

“But I feel pretty good about our opportunities in that respect. We’re talking to several people – and the thing is we’re looking for our own money so we don’t need a driver with money. We’re not there yet, but odds are good we’ll have a two-car team.”

Past RLL veterans Takuma Sato and Oriol Servia would make sense there; Sato if Andretti Autosport shifts from Honda to Chevrolet as is possible and Servia, who’s been off-and-on with RLL since 2009 on several occasions but never enjoyed a full-time season with the team. Servia is undertaking the Honda development on the 2018 universal Dallara aero kit and his setup presence would be invaluable.

“There’s some good teams that could look to improve their lineups, or teams that aren’t doing so well to improve their driver lineup. Then teams will add, like presumably us. It’s interesting to watch.

“As I’ve said all along, whoever is in the second car, it’s gotta be a competitive race car. A guy like Taku, we have a lot of warm feelings having worked with him a number of years ago. Hinchcliffe is on the market. If I look at the driver, you look at what combination works, and there’s other guys out there. Those two would get along. There’s even Oriol, who works very well with the team.

“There’s a number of options, so the goal is to get the most competitive guy you can get.”

Letterman cameo highlights RLL, SoldierStrong partnership extension

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INDIANAPOLIS – It’s not often anymore David Letterman makes public appearances on a dais, where he’s cracking jokes alongside key partners and team members.

But the partnership between Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing and SoldierStrong, with the Turns for Troops program that supports the nonprofit organization that’s dedicated to providing advanced medical technologies (namely but not exclusively exoskeletons) is no ordinary cause.

Put the two together and it added a degree of humor to an otherwise challenging subject, but it’s a cause Letterman and RLL Racing care deeply about.

Last year, at Detroit, the partnership between RLL and SoldierStrong started. For every lap Graham Rahal completed in his No. 15 Honda, United Rentals would donate $50 to SoldierStrong. In its first year, they raised more than $100,000 for SoldierStrong, which went toward the purchase of cutting-edge robotic medical devices that address a variety of physical rehabilitation needs. SoldierStrong donated these technologies to Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) hospitals nationwide, and plans to do the same with this year’s proceeds.

That anniversary is coming up on a one-year mark and it allowed the key stakeholders – Letterman, Graham and Bobby Rahal, United Rentals’ Chris Hummel and SoldierStrong’s Chris Meek – to reflect on what’s been accomplished and what is yet to come for the program, which occurred before qualifying for Saturday’s INDYCAR Grand Prix. This month, that $50 per lap amount will double to $100 per lap.

So far there have been 13 exoskeleton devices funded by SoldierStrong, each one at a cost of nearly $200,000.

Letterman, who introduced himself as “George Bernard Shaw” in his first comments today, reflected on what that all means.

“This topic raises so many questions for me even just sitting here, mentioned that they have 13 of these suits, and I’ve seen them work. I’ve seen them take a human who can’t get out of a chair and walk,” he said. “We have 13 of these now in use. One wonders what the number is of quadriplegic and paraplegic men and women who come back from military service in the defense of the United States.

“I think this is a fantastic thing, if only to create the awareness. Five years ago, I didn’t realize veterans had problems returning. It’s not like World War II. Many times they return to nothing and then sign up again and then go back to a tour of duty. So this problem deserves every amount of attention and spotlight it can garner, and one wonders why isn’t there a box on our tax return where if you want to donate a dollar to build one of these suits for a quadriplegic or a paraplegic, check it here and we’ll take care of that.”

Letterman and Sgt. Dan Rose at St. Petersburg. Photo: IndyCar

The team has a relationship with Sgt. Dan Rose, paralyzed in Afghanistan from an IED, who attended the season finale in Sonoma last year in one of the more inspirational moments of the 2016 season.

“As Dad said, I think Sergeant Dan Rose is a perfect example for us,” Graham Rahal said. “He was first introduced to us at Sonoma last year, and he’s gone from never, I think, being at an IndyCar car experiencing a race like that, standing with us for the National Anthem at Sonoma, at the time, of course, in San Francisco, that was a pretty controversial thing, and to getting a two-seater ride with Mario Andretti in Phoenix.

“And I think Dan has defied the laws of physics and things because of the suit, and in his way of life, and it’s a great joy for us to have him around. It certainly brightens our day because no matter how — even Phoenix we get collected in that first lap accident and I got to watch the rest of the race sitting with Dan. It brightens our day even amongst the worst of times.”

The younger Rahal, who debuted the United Rentals livery last year and who is driving a special edition livery this weekend, explained his own devotion to patriotism and what the partnership has meant.

Photo: IndyCar

“I’ve got to say, when this initiative came upon us, obviously thanks to United Rentals and Chris, they deserve a lot of credit for putting this program together and everything that they did for us last year, and really even when we announced it, it was, what, Detroit, I think, so they even backdated their donation to the start of the year and donated through the entire thing, and we were very proud to raise over $100,000 last year,” he said.

“But I think their commitment to the program for Turns For Troops and SoldierStrong is shown this weekend and through the 500 where they’ve doubled the donation that they are going to make to Turns For Troops, let alone passing up on the opportunity to have — well, the brand is still on the car but not in a big way and really showcase what we’re trying to do here.”

His team co-owner, who’s never been afraid to voice opinions – it was his day job for 30-plus years after his debut really came as a pit reporter in the 1971 Indianapolis 500 telecast – was naturally candid about war but remains dedicated to this partnership.

“I’m not sure why we’re still fighting, but we’re going to send paralyzed people home left and right just as sure as we’re sitting here,” he said.

“So to see that manifestation and then to know what this can accomplish, and for my money, 13 suits is a great start, but kind of a glacial approach to a problem that really needs quicker attention.

“This idea came from United Rentals and team Rahal Letterman Lanigan. I’m at the tail end of this, and I’m just happy to be included, because I think if you’ve had any experience in life in the last century in this country, the immediacy and the need for this is easily recognizable. If there’s anything I can do to push it along a nickel more, great, but make no mistake about it, I’m at the tail end of this, and I’m greatly flattered by the effort.”

Bobby Rahal: RLL needs to ‘begin season on a better footing’

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For two consecutive years, Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing has been at the top of the heap among Honda teams in the Verizon IndyCar Series.

Staying there in 2017 will be possible if the team gets off to a fast start, something that’s eluded it at St. Petersburg both seasons.

RLL’s Graham Rahal has finished 11th and 16th the last two years at the Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg, and neither result was indicative of his pace.

Rahal was assessed a drive-through penalty, perhaps questionably assessed from the race stewards, for contact with Charlie Kimball at Turn 10 in 2015. Last year, a top-five finish seemed on the cards before Carlos Munoz knocked Rahal into a spin at Turn 4, which subsequently caused a parking lot/accordion style incident last year. Rahal lamented the heavy downforce levels from the top-side of the car after the race, noting how difficult it was to pass after losing the positions from the incident.

His dad and team co-owner Bobby Rahal estimates that if Graham Rahal can have a less troublesome day at the office this go-around, it’ll make for a better start to the year for the driver of the No. 15 Steak ‘n Shake Honda. The younger Rahal, who won his maiden IndyCar race at St. Petersburg in 2008, hasn’t finished in the top-10 at St. Petersburg since coming ninth in his debut with Sarah Fisher Racing in 2010.

“I think that every year we are able to take advantage of our successes that we had the previous year – and failures –and ensure we begin the new season on a better footing,” Bobby Rahal said in the team’s preseason advance. “Last year we started much better at St. Pete than we did the previous year and it’s certainly our hope to do the same again this year.

“I think especially given the fact that the aero kits are the same, that’s one less thing to deal with so it just comes down to preparation.  We have had a positive test season so far and we will go to St. Pete with some of the things we found.  We brought in Tom German since last year but aside from that the team is basically the same so that consistency and the added value that Tom brings has got us thinking pretty positive about the upcoming season.”

The elder Rahal is also bullish on the continuity RLL has compared to Chip Ganassi Racing, which switches to Honda from Chevrolet this year, and Andretti Autosport, which has a number of engineering changes and one driver swap.

“Our expectation is to be even more competitive this year than last,” he said. “When you think about last year, half the season we were in the top five which was pretty good but we need to make it more than half of the season. We need to be averaging a top-five finish in every race in order to win the championship. We just need to start off on the right foot. Last year we got taken out by (Carlos) Munoz and it’s things like that, that aren’t of your making that put you behind.

“Ganassi coming back to Honda will certainly be a big story this year. Frankly I like the fact that they now have the same equipment as we do.  We beat them when they were with the competition so it will be interesting to see how we fare and I expect that we will fare quite well. But we can’t just focus on them; we’ve got to focus on the whole field.

“We just have to do what we’ve done the past several years and that’s rely on ourselves to develop the best car we can. Obviously everyone has to do their job, and do their job better than they’ve ever done it before.  And that’s from the management side, to the mechanics, to pit stops, to Graham’s driving.  We’ve  just got to continue to raise our game.  If we do that I think we’ll be in a good spot.”

Rahal wants to turn 2016’s unrealized potential into reality in 2017

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Graham Rahal likes to say “2016 was a year of tremendous potential.”

But it also was a year that some potential was not realized.

After a career season in 2015, when he finished fourth in the Verizon IndyCar Series and earning two wins and six podium finishes, Rahal slipped back slightly in 2016, finishing fifth with just one win and only four podiums.

So what does 2017 hold in store? If things go well for the son of 1986 Indy 500 winner Bobby Rahal, the tremendous potential of 2016 will morph into potential not only realized, but could result in the younger Rahal’s best year ever.

Rahal has the power, the car, the equipment and the personnel to make some major upward moves this year.

“We just have to find going forward a way to keep that performance level, enhance it a little bit,” Rahal said. “Obviously the cars aren’t really going to change at all (major changes are planned for 2018).

“I felt like speed-wise, our performance (in 2016) was actually better than 2015, pretty considerably. We just did our season reviews about a month and a half ago, and it’s pretty clear to see performance-wise, the team performed a lot better.

“However, we had a lot of things that just didn’t quite go our way, whereas in 2015 we had bounces that certainly did. 2016 the bounces didn’t happen. We had to fight a lot harder, still managed to get a top-five finish in the championship.

“I think that I probably drove better last year than 2015. But hopefully the best is yet to come. As a driver you always have to be critical of where can you improve, where were mistakes, what did you kind of let go, you know, and where did you lose points.”

The 28-year-old Rahal is particularly focused on potentially following in his father’s footsteps of winning the biggest race of all, the Indianapolis 500.

In nine starts in the Greatest Spectacle In Racing, the younger Rahal has just two top-10 finishes: third in 2011 and fifth in 2015. At the opposite end of the spectrum Rahal has four finishes of 25th or worse, including two last-place showings (2008 and 2014).

“We really need to improve at Indy,” he said. “That’s our main focus of everything this off-season. And also get a little bit of those breaks. You know, that’s kind of the goal. That’s what we feel like we need.”

The younger Rahal will also reunite for at least the Indianapolis 500 and probably more races with Oriol Servia, which should help upgrade Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing’s testing, race preparation and data sharing.

“Oriol is a clear plug-in for us,” Rahal said. “First of all, he’s a great guy. Second of all, he will help us. He’s going to help our performance at Indy. I can tell you that right now. And third, he’s been there so many times with the organization, he’s been in and out of the team a handful of times. He knows everybody. He’s been part of the team before. So it’s a clear fit.

“We need just a very experienced guy who can help lead us down the right path, and Oriol is going to be that guy.”

Interestingly, RLL had the opportunity to bring in a full-time second driver, but chose to go with the 42-year-old Servia in a limited number of races for now.

“There were several drivers who came to the team that wanted to run full season, had budgets to do it and everything else, and they were all turned away,” Rahal said. “The team is focused on making sure if there is the addition of a second car full-time, it has to fit the right environment.

“… We really are proud of the environment that we have, and so Oriol is a guy that fits that just perfectly and won’t upset the apple cart, so to speak. … He’s a great guy, and I think he’ll do a heck of a job for us. We’re looking forward to it.”

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Alexander Rossi, Al Unser Jr., 23 others named to Road Racing Drivers Club

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The Road Racing Drivers Club has voted 25 new members to its 2016 class.

Numerous former stars are included, with 17 regular members from open-wheel and sports car racing, as well as five associate members and three honorary members.

The newest members takes the RRDC’s overall roster over 500 members, to 510.

“We are honored to welcome a group of outstanding racing champions and high achievers in the auto-racing arena,” RRDC president and Verizon IndyCar Series team co-owner Bobby Rahal said in a release.

“It’s clear that they are not only accomplished representatives of the sport, they have conducted themselves honorably off the track, a quality the RRDC members take into consideration when voting in new members.

“We also appreciate that each new member has enthusiastically accepted membership in the RRDC. We look forward to working with them as the RRDC continues to pursue its goals of recognizing and mentoring aspiring race-car drivers through a variety of programs.”

Here are the new members of the RRDC:

Regular members:

JONATHAN BENNETT: Two-time IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship Prototype Challenge Driver Champion, 2014-15.

MATTHEW BRABHAM: 2012 USF2000 Champion; 2013 Pro Mazda Champion.

GABBY CHAVES: 2009 Formula BMW Americas Champion; 2013 Indy Lights Champion; 2015 IndyCar Rookie of the Year.

CHRISTIAN FITTIPALDI: Three-time IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship Prototype Champion (with Joao Barbosa), 2014-16; three-time Tequila Patron North American Endurance Cup Champion, 2014-16 (with Joao Barbosa).

JOHN FITZPATRICK: 1966 British Saloon Car Champion; the 1972 and ’74 European GT Champion; Porsche Cup titlist in 1972, ’74 and ’80; plus 1980 IMSA GT Champion.

GEORGE FIZELL: 1984 SCCA President’s Cup winner; four-time SCCA National Championships in Formula Vee.

SAGE KARAM: 2010 USF2000 National Champion; 2013 Indy Lights Champion; 35-time World Karting Assn. and IRL Stars of Karting National champion.

JOEL MILLER: 2006 ICA North American Champion; 2013 Rookie of the Year in Rolex Grand-Am Championship; driver coach.

SPENCER PIGOT: 2015 Indy Lights champion; 2014 Pro Mazda Champion; 2010 Skip Barber Racing Series National Champion.

JEFF PURNER: 1985 Skip Barber Racing Series Champion; 1990 IMSA Firestone Firehawk GS Champion; 1993 Trans-Am Rookie of the Year.

ALEXANDER ROSSI: 2016 Indianapolis 500 champion and Indy Rookie of the Year; competed in five F1 races in 2015 before switching to IndyCar.

AMY RUMAN: 2015 and 2016 Trans-Am Champion; first female Trans-Am Champion in 50-year history of the Series.

JORDAN TAYLOR: 2013 DP-class Champion in Rolex Grand-Am Championship (with Max Angelelli).

RICKY TAYLOR: 2006 Skip Barber Karting Shootout Scholarship winner; competes with brother Jordan in  IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship.

AL UNSER JR.: 1981 Super Vee Champion; 1982 SCCA Can-Am Champion; two-time Indy 500 winner, 1992 and ’94; two-time IndyCar Champion, 1990 and ’94.

ALEX WURZ: Retired pro driver; two-time 24 Hours of LeMans winner; F1 consultant, driver coach, president of GPDA.

JEFF ZWART: 1990 SCCA U.S. Pro Rally Open Class Champion; 2004 Baja 1000 Challenge Class Champion; Pikes Peak International Class Championships, 1994-98, 2002, 2010; directs high-performance TV commercials around the world.

Associate Members:

CRAIG BENNETT: 1987 SCCA National GT-1 Division Champion and Rookie of the Year; currently VP of RM Motorsports (high-end race-car/road-car restorations)

JOHN DOONAN: Director of Motorsports for Mazda North American Operations since 2011; licensed race-car driver since 1995, competing in SCCA, IMSA, IndyCar, etc.

DOUG FEHAN: Program Manager for Corvette Racing in the IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship and 24 Hours of LeMans; raced a Chevelle stock car in USAC in late ’60s.

DON KITCH JR.: Veteran of more than 25 years and 200 pro and amateur racing starts; founded, with wife Donna, the ProFormance Racing School, where he is chief instructor; helped develop the Team Seattle “Heart of Racing” program at Alex Job Racing.

ED PINK: The drag-racing Hemi engines he’s built over 60-plus years have won races from Midgets to IndyCars; earned Lifetime Achievement Award from Petersen Automotive Museum; also built IMSA, LeMans and NASCAR engines.

Honorary members:

WALT CZARNECKI: Executive Vice President of Penske Corporation; Vice Chairman of the Board of Team Penske. 40-year-plus tenure with Penske.

CHRIS POOK: Creator of annual Grand Prix of Long Beach, in its 43rd year; has also created temporary racing venues in Las Vegas, Dallas, Meadowlands, N.J., Denver, Del Mar, Calif., and St. Petersburg, Fla. Served on the F1 Commission of FIA.

ANDREW SCRIVEN: Draftsman on 1984 Tiga Race Cars; produced the 1985 design for the GT285 IMSA Lights/C2 Car; currently is Chief Designer for Aerospace, Military and Racing projects for Crawford Composites, LLC.

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